To Boost a Child’s Love of Learning, Try Creative Writing
Image description: a 7 year old girl with a Zoom filter of a plant on her head. The light reflects in three little streaks on each of her cheeks.
I teach children creative writing for 7 years and older on Zoom. Their grownups sometimes believe our sessions provide an outlet for the kids’ creativity, imagination, and budding voices. And that is very much the case. What’s less obvious is the enormous amount of learning that happens as kids shape their growing writing habits: writing vividly and clearly, forming coherent paragraphs, and ensuring the flow of ideas. I also see kids learning how to learn and becoming invested in the life of the mind.
How do young people become engaged participants in their learning? And, since creativity and logic are often thought to be very different creatures, how can creative writing act as a partner to academic learning?
One of the core elements in our sessions is play. Fantasy play is a vital source of learning, joy, and wonder in very early childhood, and continues to generate meaningful narratives in kindergarten and first grade. What I am seeing, in addition, is that play-oriented growth is equally vital for kids of upper elementary and middle school ages. For example, younger children enjoy coming up with a character using a Zoom filter (see the photo of my student being a plant, above) — or two (Detective Unicorn, anyone)? Kids then create a story about this character.
Zoom filters are silly, yes — so much so that I use them for no more than five minutes, to brainstorm. Treated as a pedagogical tool, though, these filters give kids a concrete way to think of a totally new character who may be layered, fresh, and interesting to them. We can then compare these characters in their writing to the characters in the books we read. This activity helps them achieve a key elementary Core Curriculum standard for elementary school age literacy: compare different texts in a coherent, logical manner. Furthermore, the ability to choose their own characters is so very important to young people. It gives them the choice and agency they crave.
And there is a lot to be said for humor. Laughter at a funny, surprising creature lowers our stress levels, helping us stay flexible and open. We can stay more relaxed about learning. We focus better. I love seeing kids thriving in this — otherwise rather intensive — Zoom environment.
Growing up, I saw how much my parents cherished humor in literature. I loved it when my mom pointed out puns and double-meanings in the work of the Russian classic poet Alexander Pushkin — because at school he was deemed serious and unapproachable. Later, I was intrigued when she read Voltaire together with me, helping me unravel the dramatic irony of Candide. These experiences shaped me as a teacher. At all ages, kids read as part of their homework, and then we tinker with themes and forms in response. Tinkering, making: I like the idea of silly and interested learning, such as picking apart a topic or, say, alliteration, interpreting it, then using it in one’s own work. Call it literary reverse engineering. Before there were MFA programs, writers had done it for ages.
And playful learning is not just for fiction; it can help prepare a child for academic “personal narratives,” or short essays. One essay prompt I love, from The Writing Prompts Workbook, Grades 1–2 by Bryan Cohen, asks a child how they would reorganize the school day if they had the choice, infinite resources, and plenty of time. (A favorite parental fantasy as well, hahaha!) It’s wonderfully goofy imaginative play. Moreover, Cohen extends the length of the essay and keeps things structured by asking children to suggest five concrete things they would change. I build on his activity by asking the writer to explain their statements, which builds persuasive writing skills, a second-grade Common Core standard. Then children are asked to go over their essay and add descriptive details, a fourth-grade Common Core standard — and one I see children in second and third grades accomplishing just as well, given a funny and imaginative story prompt.
Writing and reading magical fiction is another way of opening avenues to a child’s ability to interpret, create, and think. Middle schoolers are a particularly inspiring group in this regard, steeped as they are in magical fiction, with novels anywhere from 200 to 400 pages long. I ask kids to read, then write in response to these books: whether as fan fiction, writing that starts with imitation, ghost writing, or a sequel.
I find that kids are much more closely engaged with the texts when they are allowed to “talk back” to them, rather than treat them as dry artifacts of culture. They can, and do, devise stories that share elements of realism and mystery. Their sense of wonder — in this important life stage — is heartfelt, as well as profoundly stimulated by the literature they read. The stories they produce are rich with possibilities for beings, events and consciousness beyond everyday life.
Reading magical fiction also enables kids to build themselves into responsible, aware participants in our multiethnic and multiracial society. Today’s North American magical fiction book market is richer than ever. The elves, Hobbits, and Harry Potter of our own childhoods are joined by novels based on Slavic folklore, Jamaican ghost stories, and Hoodoo spirituality in an Alabama Black community, to name just a few. Preteens and teens can thus expand their repertoire and get ideas that tap into a bigger, more globalized collective consciousness. These are dreams, myths, and tapestries of tradition that they make their own.
One common theme in all these ways of learning is recognizing kids’ capacity for creativity as a tool to open up as individuals. In my experience, when approached as a person who can stretch and grow, capable of both creative and critical thinking, children become imaginative and thoughtful learners. They are open — to new stories, playful experiments; stories from a diverse group of cultures; and reading, thinking, choosing, and writing. Creative writing prepares them for high school, college, and intellectually curious adulthood. What a joy to be a part of this.